DUBAI/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia on Sunday warned against threats to punish it over last week’s disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as European and U.S. allies piled on pressure.
FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain, September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS
Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist critical of Riyadh’s policies, disappeared on Oct. 2 after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkey believes he was murdered and his body removed. Saudi Arabia has denied that.
U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened “severe punishment” if it turns out Khashoggi was killed in the consulate, though he said Washington would be “punishing” itself if it halted military sales to Riyadh.
“The Kingdom affirms its total rejection of any threats and attempts to undermine it, whether by threatening to impose economic sanctions, using political pressures, or repeating false accusations,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) quoted an unnamed official as saying.
“The Kingdom also affirms that if it receives any action, it will respond with greater action, and that the Kingdom’s economy has an influential and vital role in the global economy,” the official added, without elaborating.
Europe’s largest economies — Britain, France and Germany — said on Sunday they were treating the case with “the utmost seriousness”.
“There needs to be a credible investigation to establish the truth about what happened, and – if relevant – to identify those bearing responsibility for the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, and ensure that they are held to account,” the countries said in a joint statement.
“We encourage joint Saudi-Turkish efforts in that regard, and expect the Saudi Government to provide a complete and detailed response. We have conveyed this message directly to the Saudi authorities.”
The statement, by Britain’s Jeremy Hunt, France’s Jean-Yves Le Drian and Germany’s Heiko Maas, made no mention of potential actions the countries might take.
U.S. senators called for reactions ranging from boycotting an upcoming economic summit in Riyadh to ending support for Saudi military operations in Yemen.
“If they lured this man into that consulate, they went medieval on him, and he was killed and he was chopped up and they sent a death crew down there to kill him and do all of this, that would be an outrage,” Florida Senator Marco Rubio told CNN’s State of the Union.
“Just because they are an ally in an important mission, which is containing Iranian expansion in the region, cannot allow us to overlook or walk away from that.”
Fellow Republican, Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, appearing on ABC’s “This Week”, called for “severe action” which he said would affect arms sales and involvement in Yemen.
The Saudi stock market fell as much as 7 percent in early trade on Sunday, one of the first signs of economic pain Riyadh could suffer over the affair. By close, it had recovered some losses, ending down 3.5 percent and losing $16.5 billion of market value.
OIL PRICE WARNING
U.S. senators have triggered a provision of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act requiring the president to determine whether a foreign person is responsible for a gross human rights violation. The act has in the past imposed visa bans and asset freezes on Russian officials.
Anti-Saudi sentiment in the Congress could conceivably raise pressure to pass the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act, which would end sovereign immunity shielding OPEC members from U.S. legal action.
In a column published just after the SPA statement, Saudi-owned Al Arabiya channel’s General Manager Turki Aldakhil warned that imposing sanctions on the world’s largest oil exporter could spark global economic disaster.
“It would lead to Saudi Arabia’s failure to commit to producing 7.5 million barrels. If the price of oil reaching $80 angered President Trump, no one should rule out the price jumping to $100, or $200, or even double that figure,” he wrote.
Investor concern is growing that Khashoggi’s disappearance could add to a sense that Saudi policy has become more unpredictable under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is pushing social and economic reforms but has also presided over a rise in tensions between with several countries.
A Gulf banker said the Khashoggi case, combined with other events, had become a significant factor for some potential investors.
“It’s cumulative – the Yemen war, the dispute with Qatar, the tensions with Canada and Germany, the arrests of women activists. They add up to an impression of impulsive policy-making, and that worries investors,” the banker said.
Foreign capital is key to Saudi plans for economic diversification and job creation. But in response to Khashoggi’s disappearance, media organisations and some technology executives pulled out of the Riyadh investment conference scheduled for next week.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin still plans to attend, but that could change, Larry Kudlow, director of the White House National Economic Council, said on “This Week”.
The crisis has polarised Saudis, with some blaming the nation’s enemies and others concerned about the direction the country is heading under Prince Mohammed.
Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan said there had been a “frenzied campaign” to spread lies over the affair and that it was “known” who was behind that, wording used in the past to refer to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood.
Abdulrahman bin Abdullah al-Sanad, head of the body overseeing the Saudi religious police, called for unity.
“Defending the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and standing for it and its leaders is a religious duty and a national demand,” he tweeted, without referring specifically to the Khashoggi case.
Prince Khaled al-Faisal, a senior member of Saudi Arabia’s ruling family and senior advisor to King Salman, has met Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan to discuss Khashoggi’s disappearance, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters without providing details.
A Turkish official told Reuters on Sunday that the Saudis had said they would allow the consulate to be searched, and that this would happen by the end of the weekend, though he conceded to “flexibility on this date.”
“But Turkey is determined on the subject of entering the consulate and carrying out a criminal inspection. There is no alternative to carrying out this inspection. Time is important in terms of evidence,” the official said.
Additional reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi and Asma Alsharif in Dubai, Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Elizabeth Piper in London, Christopher Bing and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington; writing by Stephen Kalin; editing by Jason Neely/Robin Pomeroy